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Viewership for individual games didn’t look all that impressive, but the four networks covering March Madness got off to a strong start collectively.

Through Saturday’s action, CBS and Turner cablers TBS, TNT and TruTV averaged 7.83 million viewers for coverage of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, up 12% over CBS Sports’ 7.01 million when it went alone last year, according to Nielsen. Viewership is also on the rise in key demos including adults 18-49 (up 14%, 4.37 million vs. 3.48 million) and men 18-34 (up 15%, 1.44 million vs. 1.26 million).

And in Nielsen’s 56 metered-markets, CBS, TBS, TNT and TruTV had averaged a 5.9 household rating/14 share through Saturday’s games — up 18% from the 5.0/12 for CBS last year and the best in 20 years.

Not surprisingly, early-round ratings for CBS itself are down sharply from last year (more than 40% in primetime on Thursday), even though auds still appear to see CBS as the primary destination for games. On Thursday in primetime, for example, coverage on CBS averaged 4.95 million viewers, according to Nielsen — more than the 4.62 million combined for TBS (1.78 million), TNT (1.52 million) and truTV (1.32 million).

And this despite the fact that arguably the marquee game of the evening — the matchup between traditional powers UCLA and Michigan State — aired on cable.

The most-watched contests of the evening Thursday were the CBS games between BYU and Wofford (4.67 million) and St. John’s against Gonzaga (4.05 million). The top cable audiences came from UCLA-Michigan State on TBS (2.44 million), Cincinnati-Missouri on TNT (1.61 million) and Wisconsin-Belmont on truTV (1.51 million).

Coverage resumes this Thursday as the “Sweet Sixteen” commences with a pair of games in primetime on both CBS and TBS. CBS will air the Final Four on April 2 as well as the championship game on April 4.